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Fortress Conservation has a strong advocate in India

‘Relocation of people needs to be done because people are the root cause of loss to bio-diversity today’

Jhala wanted to become a zookeeper as a child. He pursued that interest by studying zoology and now heads the Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology department at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun. Jhala is known for his extensive research on tigers, Asiatic lions, wolves, striped hyenas and Indian fox. He tells Prakhar Jain that poaching of animals as well as their prey are the biggest challenges facing conservationists

Q&A Yadvendradev Jhala, 50, Wildlife Biologist

TEHELKA: You wanted to become a zookeeper when you were young. What fascinated you about it?
YJ:
It was a childhood passion to study wildlife, but in those days there was nothing like wildlife studies. Being a kid you didn’t know what you could do. In those days zookeeping was the best available option. I then drew my academic career in such a manner that I could study to plan.

The profession, however, hasn’t been able to attract enough youngsters. Why is it so?
Unfortunately, it does not pay much. I am quite lucky to have got a government job but if you work for an NGO there is no security and hardly any pay. So, it doesn’t attract talent. It is the need of the hour and is going to be a profession which is going to be very important in next 10-15 years to come.

Are there enough wildlife training institutions to attract these youngsters?
There are enough training institutions, but there is no market. We, at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) purposely do not do a master’s course every year. We do it every alternate year because if you generate too many masters’ students, there won’t be any employment for them. The issue is not of number of training institutions but where to send them after they are qualified.

You have been working on various endangered animals. Which is the most challenging one to keep track of?
I started with wolves and so far have found them to be the most difficult animals to study. They are very secretive, far ranging and avoid people like crazy. It took me 4-5 years to study what were they doing and where to find them before I could actually trap them and put transmitters on them. Tiger and lions have been comparatively easy.

When you try to track these animals, how do you ensure your and the animal’s safety?
Small carnivores do not pose much danger to your life. They can only injure you. But lions and tigers can kill you and are a different ball game altogether. When you are trapping them it is necessary that you don’t expose them to the small risks while doing that.

You have been tracking Asiatic lions for quite some time. What’s their situation?
I have been studying lions for 15 years. I’ve caught lions to put transmitters on them, studied their ecology and various techniques to enumerate them for estimating their population. It’s been a success story when you consider that there were about less than 15 lions left in the wild and now the number is close to 400. It’s been a major conservation success story.

The government has been talking about reintroducing cheetahs again and there were talks about how they are going to survive with lions and tigers. Do you think they can be safely introduced?
There are issues with that. Cheetah introduction was planned for the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and that’s because the Gujarat government was not giving lions to it. Kuno has already done a lot of relocation and the site was ready. It is good for Cheetah habitat as both lions and cheetahs require lot of open space in thick forests. Since the lions were not coming, we thought it best to try and use the area and bring in cheetahs. Cheetahs are at the lower rung of dominance as far as lions are concerned. Lions snatch their prey and often kill cheetahs as well. If cheetahs are brought in after lions, the lions are likely to kill them. But if you bring in cheetahs before the lions come in and they are allowed to familiarise, then they know where to hide, how to run. Then the chances of their survival are much higher in the same area. Even in several game ranches in South Africa and east Africa where cheetahs and lions were brought in, cheetahs were introduced first.

Whenever the animal census is done, lots of questions are raised about their authenticity. How reliable are the current figures for lions and tigers?
The lion numbers are done by the government of Gujarat and they are done by total count method. So they count every animal. You cannot have any statistical or scientific backing for them, but they are still being used at several places in the world. The tiger census data is done by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in collaboration with the WII where I am in charge. Earlier, they used to be obtained through pug-mark census on the premise that every tiger has a unique pug-mark. That again had no science behind it. Some people can identify tigers on the basis of their pug-mark, others can’t. So, there is no basis for any confirmation and is basically an art. Then we changed the whole science in the application of conducting countrywide monitoring for tigers and the numbers are reliable within the confidence limit we provide. So, there are anywhere between 1,500 to 1,900 tigers in India.

What are the new technologies involved in doing this kind of census?
Whenever you count anything, even the human population, there is proportion of the population that doesn’t appear in your count. If you can estimate that proportion, the non-sampled population, then only you can come up with a real number. Now how do you estimate that is the main issue of statistics? And there are several models available which allows you to do that. One of which we use for animals is called mark recapture that is done with a camera trap. So, there are analytical approaches as well as technological advancements to do it that were not there earlier. The technological advancement is that you take photographs of tigers with remote cameras and analyse it in a framework that is extremely computer-intensive. Without the advent of modern software, you could not do the analysis earlier.

Are local people still involved in these census operations?
Yes. We have a lot of local people collecting this information all across the country. We have about 88,000 people working for us, mostly forest guards and forest labourers. So, the element of local involvement is not gone by bringing in science and technology. We still rely a lot on footwork and groundwork and the only thing is the design of collecting information is more robust and more scientific so that you have information, which is more reliable.

If you have to identify some core areas of concern for endangered species in the next 4-5 years, what elements would you focus on?
Mostly, for large carnivores, it’s poaching. There is still a huge market abroad for their body parts. And though we have sufficient habitats, we need to double the number of animals we have today. The forests are empty forests and they have been poached out. Second is the poaching for prey. Most tribals and people who live in the forests depend on wild bush meat for their protein requirements. It is much easier to kill a deer and to eat it than to buy a goat or chicken and slaughter it. This is related to poverty and lifestyle. If you go into the forests, especially in the Northeast, you will find trees and everything else, but not animals.

But has the relocation of people been successful?
There has been a major event in the conservation arena in the past five years with the change in Wildlife Protection Act where there is a requirement to have a critical core area in a tiger reserve devoid of people. And the government has been generous enough to give a package, which is quite lucrative and difficult to refuse so that the people who are moving out do it voluntarily. You cannot do any forceful eviction today. The package is of around Rs 10 lakh per family. That’s quite nice and you need these areas to conserve bio-diversity without people because people are the root cause of the loss to biodiversity today.

Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
prakhar@tehelka.com 

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